Angkor Wat is a temple masterpiece. Not only is it Cambodia’s most beloved and best preserved temple but also the largest religious monument in the world. The 2 km2 site represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer Empire and was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and later to Buddhism.
The majestic structure of Angkor Wat temple which literally means “City of Temples” was actually the name of the main temple, not the entire complex. This main temple lies at the heart of the Angkor Archaeological Park, which covers around 400 km2 and contains many other Khmer temples dating from the 9th to the 15th century. Each has its own allure as it was built by a different king during his ruling or at least for a different purpose. Consequently this post is all about us discovering temples, temples and temples 🙂
After our three nights in Bangkok we flew to Siem Reap in Cambodia, our gateway for exploring Angkor Archaeological Park. As we got out of the airplane the heat felt like opening the door to a sauna! We were sweat-soaked by the time we reached the airport building to process through immigration and get our visa for Cambodia.
Not only in Thailand but also in Cambodia the royal family is fairly important and the royals welcome visitors right at the airport entrance:
Our exposure to the heat was nowhere close from being over when we were picked up by this tuk-tuk-rickshaw. Our driver was a clear minority by wearing a helmet. Perhaps he was not very convinced of his own driving skills? 😉
In case you were having a bad hair-day or your hair got messed up from the turbulence of the passing traffic this particular tuk-tuk was even equipped with a comb which was attached to the inside rooftop:
On the ride to our hotel we got a first impression of the chaotic seeming traffic in Cambodia. As a former French colony they have right-hand side traffic. That was about the only familiar part to us 😉 Wherever we looked there were motorbikes, tuk-tuks and people on and around the streets. And what you can’t see on the pictures is the acoustic signaling or horn-honking going on!
The next morning we rented two bikes and headed to the temples of Angkor. Already in the morning it was really hot and temperatures kept increasing.
After about 15 to 20 minutes we arrived at the main site, Angkor Wat. This site is known as the world’s largest religious building and is a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag and bank notes. Angkor Wat is surrounded by a 190 meters wide moat which forms a giant rectangle measuring 1.5 x 1.3 km2.
The west entrance begins with steps leading to a raised sandstone terrace which turn into a long causeway leading over the moat and towards the temple. Walking across the causeway is quite an experience if one considers it was laid down over 800 years ago! Just clearing this area from the jungle to build the temples must have been a monumental task. Keep in mind that there are no quarries in the area. That means every stone had to be brought here from the Kulen mountains some 50 km away!
If you were wondering if everybody visiting Angkor walked around as run-down as us, the answer is clearly no. For example this particular couple clearly dressed up far more chic than us. But for our defense, with those shoes we are pretty sure they did not do as much walking around as we did…
Giant stone lions on each side of the terrace guard the moat:
After crossing the moat we reached the outer wall. The entry gate consists of three towers of varying heights and with collapsed upper parts. These entry towers hide the full view of the five towers of the central group which only become visible after passing this outer wall:
Even this outer facade is decorated everywhere with long series of stone carvings from the outside as well as the inside:
We continued exploring the outer wall and reached a 3 meter statue of Vishnu carved from a single sandstone block. Breaking with the Shaivism tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
Once we crossed the outer wall we finally got our first glimpse of the famous Angkor Wat main building with its central tower rising above the others. What an impressive monument! None of the photos we have taken can give a sense of how grand this is – you have to see it with your own eyes.
The temple is a representation of Mount Meru which is a sacred mountain with five peaks. In Hindu, Jain as well as Buddhist cosmology this mountain is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. Here the five towers symbolize the five peaks of Mount Meru and the walls and moat the surrounding mountain ranges and ocean.
A great thing about Angkor Wat is that one can explore it at ones own pace. We took our time and wandered around the temple and its corridors, rooms and yards and soaked up the magical atmosphere. The sun did its best to make the insides and shady places more preferable… But as far as we could tell the only options were hot and crazy hot.
The temple was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in the capital of the Khmer Empire as his state temple and future mausoleum. Over steep wooden stairways we entered the upper gallery. The original stone steps were at least as steep and represented the difficulty of ascending to the kingdom of the gods.
From the top we had a great view over the temple and the surrounding jungle:
On the inside there were several Buddhist shrines or altars which local monks keep decorated and in regular use:
We wandered along the galleries and were happy when every now and then a soothing breeze passed by:
Here some pictures from around the galleries:
After some time we descended again. With all the people now entering it seemed we had chosen a lucky time window:
We continued to the back side of Angkor Wat and noticed that there were a lot less tourists off the big pathways:
Before visiting Angkor Wat and after watching Tomb Raider and other adventure movies we had the idea of a lone European explorer hacking his way through the thick jungle of Cambodia when he by chance stumbled across the lost ruins of Angkor, which turned out to later become a wonder of the ancient world. Somewhat similar to Machu Picchu I guess.
But this is just an urban myth. When Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist, came across the temples in 1860, Angkor was run-down, succumbing to nature and in a serious state of disrepair. Yet it was never lost. The location of all Angkor sites was always known to the Khmer and even other westerners had been there before Henri Mouhot. Mouhot himself never claimed that he was the one to discover it, yet somehow he became associated with it.
We walked back towards the entrance and got to see Angkor Wat’s enormous dimensions while passing by the center part from the outside:
One of the favorite picture spots for the famous reflection picture is the waterlily pond. Everybody takes this picture from the same spot 🙂
A last view back to Angkor Wat’s center before we left the way we had come, through the front wall:
We carried on towards the south gate of Ankgor Thom, the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire, covering an area of over 10 km2. The surrounding walls are 8 meters high and four impressive entrance gates give way to the city, each from a different cardinal direction.
The rock-hewn faces on the 23 m towers at the city gates take after those of the Bayon temple and it is believed that they either represent the king himself or guardians of the empire’s cardinal points. The gateways were originally closed by massive wooden doors. The bridge leading over the moat is lined by stone statues holding the Naga (giant serpent) with demons on one side and gods on the other.
On the way to the next temple we passed by monkeys playing at the edge of the road:
In front of most of the temples one finds prohibitory signs trying to ensure respectful and attentive attitude while wondering along the temples site:
One of the most enigmatic and impressive temples of the Angkor group is Prasat Bayon. It was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat in the late 12th century to early 13th century, by the King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to Buddhism.
The entrance site heralds why the Bayon temple is the perennial favorite at Angkor Thom. Gigantic towers with over 2’000 sculptured faces etched from rock and smiling down at the visitor ensure that one constantly feels observed.
For the longest time the dense jungle surrounding the temple camouflaged its position in relation to other structures at Angkor. Only in the early 20th century it was discovered that Bayon stands in the exact center of the city of Angkor Thom.
The 54 original towers were each decorated with one enormous face of bodhisattva Avalokitesvara on each side. These 216 faces looked down on the pilgrims and claimed religious and regal authority. Rumor has it that the smiling faces resemble the king himself who is said to have been a creative genius with an inflated ego. Besides the large faces the remaining space on the towers is studded with smaller bodhisattva faces resulting in over 2’000 faces giving this temple its majestic character.
Today one can almost freely wonder along the 37 remaining towers.
Admittedly walking around in the temple is a bit eerie as wherever you go and whatever you see there is always a huge stone face looking down at you with a strange smile. For sure this was a strong hint for all people in the city that the king was always watching them…
“The faces with slightly curving lips, eyes placed in shadow by the lowered lids utter not a word and yet force you to guess much”
P. Jennerat de Beerski, 1920s
These at the ends slightly upwards curling lips are also known as the “Smile of Angkor”.
Besides the over 2’000 faces Bayon is decorated with 1.2 kilometers of bas-reliefs with more than 11’000 figures depicting not gods, but ordinary everyday Khmer life.
Found it! A place in the shade for a short rest and a picture 🙂
The layout of Bayon is comprised of three levels. The first and second levels are square galleries featuring the reliefs. The third level is dominated by a circular central sanctuary. Despite this seemingly simple plan the arrangement of Bayon is complex, with a maze of galleries, passages and steps.
Wherever one stands, looking around one is sure to see a face looking down at one:
We definitely spent the most time on the third level and when we left Bayon we were mesmerized by the stone faces.
A last look back over Bayon:
And we continued along the dusty roads…
We left Angkor Thom through the Victory Gate and crossed the moat that surrounds the city:
After biking and wandering around temples in the Cambodian heat we restocked our water and fruit supplies at food stalls along the street.
To give you an idea of the heat: Although each of us drank around 3.5 liters of water that day we did not visit a toilet once during that day. We were sweating sooooo much we sweat it all out!
Some delicious Cambodian mini-bananas?
Reading up on the next site during our lunch break:
After a little rest we continued our temple marathon to Ta Prohm, nicknamed the Tomb Raider temple:
Ta Prohm is also called the capital of the kingdom of the trees. It has been left untouched by archaeologists except for the clearing of the paths for visitors and structural strengthening to disrupt further deterioration.
Due to its natural state one can experience the wonder the early explorers must have felt when they came upon these monuments in the middle of the nineteenth century.
Shrouded in dense jungle fig, banyan and kapok trees spread their gigantic roots over stones, slowly ripping walls and terraces apart as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures. Trunks of trees twist among stone pillars.
“The strange, haunted charm of the place entwines itself about you as you go, as inescapably as the roots have wound themselves about the walls and towers”
The photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors. And it really was amazing to see these gigantic trees reclaiming their grounds:
From our pictures you might get the impression, that we were the only people around. That’s an illusion. Sometimes we just had seconds to take a picture without anybody else appearing on it and before the next bus load of people would show up. But luckily they left as fast as they appeared and we had all the time we wanted to wait for the perfect moment 🙂
A Sanskrit inscription in stone gives details that it took 79’365 people to maintain the temple including 18 great priests, 2’740 officials, 2’202 assistants and 615 dancers. Among the property belonging to the temple was a set of golden dishes weighing more than 500 kilograms, 35 diamonds, 40’620 pearls, 4’540 precious stones, 876 veils from China, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols. Even considering that these numbers were probably exaggerated to glorify the king, Ta Prohm must have been an important and impressive monument.
Nowadays the trees growing out of the ruins are perhaps the most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm. Two species predominate which are the silk-cotton tree and the strangler fig.
The reptile like roots of the trees meandering in between the ruins and slowly covering the ancient structures make Ta Prohm the perfect scenery for adventure movies. Thus it is not a surprise that this temple was used as a location for Angelina Jolie running around as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider film. That is also the in-official name of this temple which is used not only by tourists but also by locals and especially the tuk-tuk drivers.
Deliberately left unrestored the trees are tangling and strangling and melting into the rocks. One can easily get the impression the trees are taking over the temple:
At some of the temples children sell souvenirs and employ emotional language about how they need money for school. Buying from them will however encourage them to work in this way rather than make them visit school. Still not always easy to refuse them and send them away. In between the ruins a local artist was painting and selling his pictures:
Another huge tree taking over a building:
Looking up the trees it becomes obvious why they need support from their gigantic and wide-spread roots on the ground:
After a full day of templing around we were fairly exhausted and headed back to Siem Reap. On the way we passed by interesting “street life”:
Waiting for customers or just relaxing?
The motorbike loading capacities seem nearly endless… 😉
The perfect way to replenish our fluid balance after such a sweaty day was to enjoyed chilled Angkor beers and savoir the gathered impressions:
Several different tasty Cambodian dishes helped us regain some of our strength, before calling it a day:
The next morning we got up before the sun (~4:30 am) and headed back to Angkor Wat for the sunrise. For this day we had arranged a tuk-tuk driver to drive us to Angkor Wat and around to the more remote temple sites. He picked us up at our hostel and headed along the dark streets and towards Angor Wat. Fortunately this early the temperatures were still comfortable.
We passed the moat surrounding Angkor Wat:
Shortly after we arrived at Angkor Wat in the dark. We had brought our headlamp but otherwise we could have bought flashlights on site from the business minded Cambodians. It was funny to see how they were calling out for the flashlights and as soon as the sun had risen they all switched to souvenirs and guides 🙂
We headed to THE place to go for sunrise: the waterlily reflection pond:
Here we waited for the sun to rise and see the glowing ball of fire rise behind the main Angkor site:
Unfortunately at this time of the year the sky is often very misty. This is also due the farmers burning off the remains of their fields which generates a lot of smoke. Unfortunately the sunrise didn’t turn out quite as spectacular as hoped.
Again you can’t tell from the above pictures but we were by far not the only ones who had headed out for the sunrise. By the time the sun had risen hundreds of people had gathered around the pond:
High time to leave the masses and head on to some more secluded sites. We boarded our private tuk-tuk and started on our Grand Circuit tour:
Our first stop along the tour was Srah Srang which is a large lake (700 x 300 m2) with an elegant landing terrace. Once a royal bath, it was built in the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII.
From there we continued to the Buddhist temple Banteay Kdei, meaning “Citadel of Chambers”:
Banteay Kdei has not been restored and allows the visitor to experience what it may have looked like in the 19th century.
Another beautiful abandoned temple and perfect to wander around and explore.
By now the sun had also risen over the haze of the horizon and appeared behind the ruins:
Banteay Kdei was built of soft sandstone and many of the galleries and porches have collapsed by now.
After absorbing the atmosphere and lingering around for some time we headed on to the next temple site. Pre Rub was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and probably located on a former shivaite ashram. The pyramid shaped temple is built entirely of brick and laterite and can be climbed to the top level. The morning sun lets the warm tones of the bricks shine in a bright orange:
It was built in the second half of the tenth century by King Rajendraman II and dedicated to the Hindi god Siva.
Even here we spotted small flowers struggling in this hot environment:
The name Prerup recalls one of the rituals of cremation. Some archaeologists believe that the large vat located at the base was used at cremations.
And our temple journey continued on:
We passed a street store with all kinds of hats:
And green rice fields:
Finally, after a ride on a bumpy road, we arrived at Banteay Samre. The temple is named after the Samre, an ethnic group of mountain people who inhabited the regions at the base of Phnom Kulen and were probably related to the Khmers.
The temple is definitely worth the extra effort to get there and to experience the elaborate architecture and fine carvings which become apparent once stepping inside the complex:
It was built in the middle of the 12th century in the Angkor Wat Style and dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu. Banteay Samre is one of the most complete complexes of Angkor due to extensive restoration. All of the buildings around the inside moat are on a raised base with horizontal moldings and decorated in some areas with figures framed by lotus buds.
We kept ourselves motivated and again headed on to the next site. The way there was full of everyday life scenes, which were by now nearly as interesting as the sights 😉
The next site was the temple of Mebon, which was constructed as a pyramid of receding terraces on which many detached structures were placed. The most noticeable being the five towers which crown the top. It was built in the second half of the tenth century and dedicated to Hindu god Siva as an ancestor temple in memory of the kings parents.
Back in the time Mebon stood on a small island in the middle of the Eastern Baray which was fed by the Siem Reap river and made the temple only accessible by boat. Again the five towers represent the five peaks of the mythical Mount Meru.
The stairways of the base are flanked by lions and monolithic elephants stand majestically at the corners of the first and second tiers. They are depicted naturalistically with fine details such as the harnessing:
On the way to our late lunch we stopped at Ta Som temple. It was built in the end of the 12th century and has not yet been restored. Thankfully it is a small and quiet temple as it is not on the list of many tourists:
Before heading to the next temples we decided to stop along the way for lunch. We were lured into a small food stall with the promise of a fan. Sometimes it’s not all about the food when deciding where to eat 🙂
After ordering the food we found out that they had a fan but no electricity. The fan wasn’t functional! The food still turned out to be delicious so the we did not regret our choice.
As we often experienced, it is better to choose meat-free dishes in these small food stalls which operate in this incredible heat and apparently also without electricity.
Close by was our next site, Neak Pean. This is a fairly small site and basically a collection of five ponds. Unfortunately water had been drained from the ponds for construction and restoration purposes. Back in the times it was here at the tiny temple of Neak Pean that princesses laid down their lovely offerings of wrought gold and pungent perfumes.
We headed towards our last temple:
Preah Khan was built in the 12th century and was the center of a substantial organisation with a total of around 100’000 officials and servants. Restoration has started in some of the parts, but more have been left unrestored, with numerous trees and vegetation growing among the ruins.
It is believed that the Preah Khan temple was the residence of King Jayavarman VII while Angkor Thom was under construction.
Another theory is that the Preah Khan temple could have been a university of medicine.
Parts of it reminded us of Ta Prohm as there were huge trees taking over parts of the buildings and walls.
There was even a rare two-story ruin to be discovered:
And here too many of the walls were decorated with bas-reliefs. Here with meditating priests:
A bas-relief of Angkor dancers above water lily plants:
And here a weathered bas-relief of the khmer guardian angel spirit devata (a deva is the Hindu term for deity and a devata is a kind of smaller deity).
After a long day and many many temples we made one last stop at the 350 meters long Terrace of Elephants. Initially it was used as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall:
The surrounding walls are richly decorated with reliefs:
This had been our very last stop and at this point we were really saturated with temples. Our tuk-tuk driver took us back to our hostel in Siem Reap in the afternoon and we had time for a short rest. In the evening we visited the famous night market which is packed with booths selling silk, handicrafts and all kinds of other souvenirs:
We relaxed our tired feet in one of the “Dr. Fish Spas”, a pool of small fish which nibble away the dead skin of your feet. At the beginning this tickled a lot so that Tini ended up giggling away the first few minutes 🙂
It’s a worthwhile experience to sit at the fish basin chatting with other people while refreshing with chilled beer and feeding the fish. Seems like a win-win for all parties 🙂
Later that evening we had dinner at an open air barbecue restaurant which we chose because of its great barbecue smell and its many guests. We had some grilled meat, shrimps and kale:
For drinks we sampled Cambodia Lager beer:
For the rest of the evening we continued strolling the busy streets and even passed by food stalls serving grilled snakes and frogs on skewers. Too bad we had already eaten 🙂
This was our last night in Siem Reap and the next morning we would be heading to Phnom Penh by boat. Siem Reap and especially Angkor had almost immediately thrilled us despite all the efforts, the disagreeable temperatures and the liters of sweat. Angkor is one of the few places in the world where one can up-close experience an astonishing concentration of overwhelming and significant archaeological sites. Therefore we completely fall into line with the following quote:
“Go to Angkor, my friend, to its ruins and to its dreams”
P. Jennerat de Beerski, 1924This entry was posted in Asia, WorldMap